After a dozen years in a tug-of-war with New York’s city government, five men — who as teenagers were unfairly ripped from their families and incarcerated for a crime they were later proven innocent of — have won a $40 million settlement. It’s a bittersweet victory for the group of one-time Harlem kids now known as the Central Park Five, one that is a long time coming and finally closes a chapter that has overshadowed most of their lives.
But was $40 million enough?
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Their case, which originated in 1989 when the Black and Latino boys (Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, and Yusef Salaam) were accused of the brutal beating and rape of a White female, Tricia Meili, a 28-year-old investment banker who went on a jog one summer night in Central Park when she was attacked and left for dead.
To this day, she has no memory of the incident and has spent years recovering from it.
The five boys were in the park that night but had nothing to do with the attack. Still, a public fueled by media reports of teenage “wilding” or random violent attacks, were hungry to see something done about the crime. New York police detectives tracked all five of the youths down over the next few days, and under intense interrogation, got them to implicate themselves in the attack. Their racially and politically charged conviction satisfied an insatiable city (including then-Mayor Ed Koch and billionaire Donald Trump who took out newspaper advertisements calling for their execution) that wanted them put far, far away.
Still, all of them maintained their innocence, insisting that police had coerced their confessions.
They spent their teen and early adult years incarcerated, serving sentences ranging from five to 13 years before their release. Finally, Mathias Reyes, a convicted rapist and murderer serving 33 1/2 years to life who once had a fight with Wise while they were held at the New York City jail at Rikers Island, later confessed that he, in fact, was the one who attacked Meili, which in turn led to the exoneration of the Central Park Five in 2002.
Fast forward to 2014, and each of the men, now in their 40s, have been waiting for the results of a $250 million lawsuit they filed against the city. On Thursday, they settled with the city for $40 million — nowhere near what they sought — but more than what they would have received if they had walked away.
But with the energy the city has put behind convicting them added to the years they were taken away from their families and communities, $1 billion wouldn’t be enough. Probably no amount of money would be.
New York — with the exception of a number of folks in Harlem and elsewhere in the Black community — was vociferous in ensuring that these boys were locked up. The convictions were physical for the five, but symbolic for the rest of the city: It was a conviction of all Blacks and Latinos who were living with a poor educational system, unemployment, and systemic institutionalized racism.
Meanwhile Fifth Avenue sold cigars and jewelry to people who applauded, and benefited from, that very thing.
Filmmakers Sarah and Ken Burns made a documentary about the case and released it last year. I sat down with four of the five men and talked to them for a story I did for TIME. What I found most striking about meeting them was that after all that had happened to them, after the hell they were put through at such young ages, they weren’t walking around embittered or angry. They had filed the suit, but at the time had no reason to believe that some great payday was coming. No mayoral administration had supported their cause until much later when current Mayor Bill DeBlasio, pledged to get the case settled. And although attitudes had softened since their exonerations, some were still solidly convinced that they were violent criminals.
But that still wasn’t enough to break them down.
Kevin Richardson summed it up for me, “None of us are bitter. We’re disgusted. We’re disgusted with the city for what happened to us. I tend to say this in certain screenings [of the documentary] — that if we continue to be bitter, we’ll be bitter all the way until the grave. So we all found a way to challenge that negative energy and turn it into a positive.”
The Central Park Five case was more than a criminal case against five young boys. In many ways it was a rehashing of the Scottsboro Boys case, which was another trial where America was greedy for the imprisonment of Black males and bent over backward to achieve it — but they were eventually proven wrong. The case was a sign that, in America, jailing Black men has been more sport than justice, and that with the disproportionate incarceration rate for Black males, nightmares like this can continue to happen.
And because they can, the Central Park Five can never truly be vindicated.
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